The St. Louis Cardinals are
reeling, having lost seven of their last ten while their five-game lead in the
National League Central Division has eroded to just a half-game. Their worst fate
yet was being swept this week by the lowly Houston Astros despite having started
three veteran pitchers at home, Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter.
On Friday night at second-place
Cincinnati, just one-half game behind St. Louis, rookie
left-hander Jaime Garcia is being
called upon as a stopper – to stop the bleeding.
It is an amazing turn of events
from just 90 days earlier. By the time the 23-year-old reported to Cardinals
spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida in mid-February, his pitching coach and manager, Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa, respectively, had made
it clear on multiple occasions that Garcia would be better served to return to
Triple-A Memphis this season.
Coming off Tommy John elbow
ligament replacement surgery in August 2008, Garcia returned late last season to
make nine very effective minor league appearances. Yet, the Cardinals braintrust
wanted to protect their young star through fewer and less stressful minor league
outings here in 2010.
Garcia blew those plans out of the
water by pitching so well in spring training (3.00 ERA, 20:5 strikeout-to-walk
ratio in 24 innings) and with such poise that La Russa and Duncan had no choice.
The native of Reynoso,
Mexico would be
their fifth starter.
In his six regular season starts
since, Garcia has been better than anyone expected.
22nd-round pick in the 2005 draft is among the rookie pitching
leaders in the National League in almost every category. His 1.18 ERA is a full
run better than the second-place hurler. Garcia’s three wins are tied for the
league lead and he is second in both strikeouts with 30 and opposing batting
average at just .195.
Garcia is attributing a part of
his early season success to an improved outlook toward his
“Mentally, I am a totally
different guy,” he told me this past week.
Even so, Garcia did not
necessarily expect to be so consistently good coming off surgery.
“At the time (of the procedure),
they told me I would be able to pitch in one year, but recovery is different for
different guys,” Garcia said. “I was told that I would feel better sometimes
than others and that some guys take as much as two or two-and-a-half years to
get all the way back.”
Injury expert Rick Wilton of
Baseball-Injury-Report.com reaffirms the individuality of recovery times while
acknowledging there are standard guidelines.
“Every pitcher is different,”
“As of right now, a starter needs 12-14 months to recover and be able to
start a game and work at least five innings. The area of improvement in
recovery time appears to be with relievers. They can come back in 11 months (see
Toronto’s B.J. Ryan, for example), mainly because they don't have to build up their stamina as
much as starters do.”
Garcia seems to have stamina out
of the gate as he is consistently getting into the back end of his games. Having
done even better than the textbook quality start each outing, Garcia has gone
six or more innings and allowed two or fewer runs all six times out in 2010.
(The quality start measurement is three or fewer runs
In fact, Garcia is only one
of three MLB rookies since at least 1952 to begin a season with six or more
of these games. The record over that time is eight, co-owned by Fernando Valenzuela of the 1981
Dodgers and Joe
McIntosh of the 1975 Padres.
Though some have expressed concern
over Garcia’s projected workload, Wilton sees 18 months as the typical “return to
normal” time for recovering hurlers. It has now been 21 months since Garcia went
under the knife.
“Generally, a pitcher is fully
recovered roughly 18 months after the surgery, including regaining full arm
strength,” Wilton said. “There does not appear to be any concerns over maximum
workload with pitchers once they get close to that 18 month
Case in point is one of the
National League’s top young starting pitchers who had been on exactly the same
Tommy John trajectory as Garcia, 12 months ahead, with spectacular
Florida’s Josh Johnson had his TJS in August 2007
after pitching almost the identical number of innings as Garcia the year prior
to their respective surgeries (157 vs. 155). In 2009, Johnson’s first season
back, he made 33 starts and threw 209 innings for the Marlins. The
now-26-year-old right-hander went 15-5 with a 3.23 ERA and earned a berth on the
NL All-Star team last season.
Undoubtedly, the Cardinals would
be delighted with similar results from Garcia in 2010.
To be able to carry that kind of load means Garcia has to remain alert as to his physical condition. One current area of Jaime’s focus
is on monitoring his body and being ready to adapt.
“I may get to the point where I am
not stiff and tight in cool weather,” Garcia explained. “I am finding a routine
that works for me.”
With an ace like the 35-year-old Carpenter in his clubhouse, the
owner of a Cy Young Award and a former Tommy John patient himself, it was not
surprising that Garcia asked the veteran for guidance.
As one might expect from the
no-nonsense Carpenter, his advice was clear and straight-forward.
“I simply told Jaime to make sure
on days when he is sore – because there WILL be days he is sore – to make sure
he takes it easy,” Carpenter said.
Garcia acknowledged receipt of the
message and is taking it to heart, yet there is the glimmer of hope that he
might even be better down the road. He is aware that some have reported
increased velocity several years after the procedure, but isn’t necessarily
“My velocity might get two miles
per hour higher later, but if not, I am very pleased with my results,” he
Cardinals fans certainly agree.
Brian Walton can be reached via
email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.
Follow Brian on Twitter.
© 2010 stlcardinals.scout.com. All
rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or